Are we becoming fish-brained?

Author Richard Shotton thinks that, nowadays, we're not dumb, just discerning

Everyone seems to think we’re getting dumber by the year. Are we really?

Attention is an area of brain power that gets lots of… well, attention. One of today’s commonly repeated claims is that the average attention span has been reduced to that of a goldfish. Could that be true?

Thankfully, it’s a question that the BBC took on for one of its More or Less podcasts. It’s well worth a listen. First, we learn that in 2015, media outlets widely reported the human attention span to have shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000, to just 8 seconds in 2013. And the attention span of a goldfish? 9 seconds, apparently. This led to the obvious conclusion that humans have a shorter attention span than fish.

But the More or Less stats geeks were suspicious and did a bit of digging. The 8-second statistic had been pulled from a 2015 report by the Consumer Insights team at Microsoft Canada. However, the figure didn’t come from any new research. In the report, it’s referenced to a website, Statistic Brain. But this site, in turn, provided no research or referencing to back up the claim either. The More or Less team had reached an evidential dead end — the number appeared to be completely unfounded.

Experts agreed that the statistic smelled fishy. Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychologist and psychology lecturer at the Open University, was interviewed for the podcast. She specialises in attention and perception. And she simply does not believe that the human attention span has declined from 12 to 8 seconds over the last 15 years. Partly because, she said, “average attention span is not a metric that psychologists would try to measure and quantify.” It’s not a useful concept.

Far more interesting to researchers would be a person’s ability to control and sustain their attention in a particular task. Attention is task dependent. So, the length of time that a person focuses on an image doesn’t tell you how long the same person might listen to a podcast.

In short, the BBC team thoroughly debunked the “attention span of a goldfish” factoid. And this fits with what we observe around us. We are more than capable of paying close attention to twisty HBO plots for hours at a time. In fact, almost all of us do. And the average length of books has actually increased — from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

But, I feel more distracted

I hope I haven’t lost you yet — there’s more. Whilst our ability to pay attention hasn’t plummeted as feared, it is true that our environments have changed since the smartphone revolution. We all carry the ultimate distraction machine around every day, and it’s usually close to hand. Attention switching is real, and competition for attention is strong.

It’s down to every individual how they choose to apply their attention.

How to block attention spam

The trouble with the bogus 8-second headline is that, if you truly believe your customers can not focus per se, the logical thing to do is to keep your content super short. However, if you believe that our attention is task specific, this suggests a different tactic. Don’t focus on brevity. Instead focus on creating ads that people want to engage with — captivate the audience with something relevant, useful or entertaining.

The message is clear: approach attention-span headlines with a degree of caution. The evidence is weak that you should be doing anything other than creating ads that grab and hold attention. They can be as long as they need to be, provided they are enchanting. Because, as the great ad man Howard Gossage said, “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them; and sometimes it’s an ad.”

We’re not dumb.* We’re discerning.

*Incidentally, neither are goldfish. In fact, their spatial and recognition memory is as good as any bird or mammal we know about.

Astroten’s next workshop on applying behavioural science to marketing will be in September. Details here.

Featured image: The Shape of Water (2017)

Richard Shotton

Richard is the author of The Choice Factory, a best-selling book on how to apply findings from behavioural science to advertising.Richard started his career as a media planner 18 years ago, working on accounts such as Coke, Lexus, and comparethemarket, before specialising in applying behavioural science to business problems.He is the founder of Astroten, a consultancy that applies behavioural science to marketing.He regularly runs training session with brands, big and small, using insights from behavioural science to help solve their problems.He tweets about the latest social psychology findings from the handle @rshotton.

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